A new Champions League format could be on its way – and we are likely to find out by the end of April.
The best players in the world often flirt with leaving their clubs. That’s how they leverage better contracts, show their employers what they’re worth and keep their value.
It’s the same for Europe’s biggest clubs. The likes of Juventus and Barcelona have talked for a long time now about the idea of breakaway leagues, Super Leagues and the potential to earn more revenue from elsewhere. You’ll notice that it’s rarely the Premier League sides that instigate these debates since they already earn more from their domestic leagues than any other.
So UEFA are in between a rock and a hard place. How do they satisfy the big boys of Europe when it comes to winnings yet keep their big competitions competitive and worth watching?
The latest idea is a revamp of the group stages of the Champions League. It would be the biggest shift that the competition has seen in two decades – and you guessed it, it gives better chances to the big boys.
What is the proposed new Champions League format?
We all know how the Champions League works at current: 32 teams, eight groups of four, two qualify. That’s easy to work out. The Swiss-style system, however, adds another four teams – so 36 – and it takes away the group aspect.
Complicated? Let us explain. The 36 teams who qualify are ranked by coefficient: so how well they’ve done in past tournaments, like a seeding. A draw is made giving every team five opponents of these 36 teams. Every club plays their opponents home and away. The 36 teams are then ranked by the number of points they’ve got from their games.
The top eight teams qualify for the next round of the tournament automatically. The next 16 teams – so those ranked ninth to 24th out of the 36-team league – compete in play-offs against each other for the other eight places in the last-16.
It’s assumed that the teams at the top will only play easier games than the teams at the bottom.
What are pros of a Swiss-style system?
Naturally, there’s a lot of support from bigger clubs for the Swiss-style system. A team like Juventus, for example – who might not get into the top four in Serie A this season – could well have blushes spared by a 36-team tournament that accounts to let them in based on their prestige. One idea floated is that the top eight teams from the 36-team league get Champions League qualification for next season as a given right.
Andrea Agnelli, the Juve chairman, executive Member and Chairman of the European Club Association and also UEFA Executive Committee member has in the past used the example of Atalanta and Roma. Was it fair that Roma were ditched from the Champions League after one bad season, left without the riches that the tournament brings, while Atalanta got in out of nowhere?
Agnelli doesn’t think so, clearly – and if you support a big club, you’ll probably be buoyed by the idea of your team having a poor season or two and still reaching the promised land.
Aside from that, the Swiss-style system means that there’s more football on – get in – and there’s perhaps a better chance of seeing the big teams facing each other before Christmas. What’s more, we can definitively make better claims for who the best teams in Europe are, surely?
What are cons of a Swiss-style system?
Say you’re Arsenal, who are ranked highly in UEFA’s coefficient. If you qualify for the new Champions League, it looks like you’d be more likely to play Shakhtar Donetsk and Dinamo Zagreb. If you’re Leicester City – with a poorer coefficient, given that they have less European prestige than Arsenal – you might end up facing Barcelona and Juventus in your five games.
How’s that fair? How’s any of this fair? This is dragging the elite further and further away from the others. The Swiss-style system is used in sports such as chess, where players are ranked based on talent – it doesn’t translate easily to an industry in which money is the biggest factor as to who the biggest players are.
And then there are the worrying ideas being floated around this. The top eight sides qualifying for next year’s tournament basically means you can qualify for the Champions League before Christmas by beating five poor teams from across Europe. There’s talk of these top sides not being allowed to buy players from each other, too – forcing European football into two brackets of those who play for the best, and those who don’t.
Back to Arsenal, who haven’t played Champions League football since 2017. Do they deserve to be thrust back into the competition, based on their history and consistency in the Europa League, or should they have to finish in the top four, like everyone else? Even the most diehard Gooner would have to admit that the latter is far fairer.
Who knows? The calendar is already chockablock as it is, with Nations League football taking up more room, two domestic cups in England and France and the Club World Cup eventually being expanded into a bigger competition.
Andrea Agnelli has some more ideas on this subject, too. He thinks that European football should take up a third of the calendar and that England would be better off with an 18-team Premier League. The powers that be in this country are unlikely to cut a leg off their own cash cow, however, to satisfy the Juventus chairman.
Liverpool playing two competitions in two days? Jurgen Klopp not even appearing at an FA Cup tie Liverpool are playing? Yeah, that could well become more common. Imagine your team playing league football on Saturday, Champions League on Tuesday and League Cup on Thursday, fielding 25 players across the three games. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility – nor is the idea of teams in Europe coming into the League Cup and FA Cup later.
Then there’s the prediction that Arsene Wenger made a number of years ago that eventually, the Champions League will take place on Saturdays with league matches being played midweek. That seems like another next step that could be sooner rather than later.
When will the Champions League be revamped?
The new system was supposed to be agreed by UEFA on March 31 – but at the last minute the decision was delayed until April 19, according to New York Times journalist Tariq Panja. It is still highly likely to be ratified on this date.
But when would it kick in?
The next few years of the Champions League are already mapped out. The 2024/25 season of the tournament would be the first one to feature the proposed Swiss-style League. So time to up your coefficient, boys.
Football tends to work in three-year cycles when it comes to European competition. Next season – 2021/22 – will be the first for the Europa Conference League. That’s the third European competition beneath the Europa League – the League One, of Europe – while the Champions League and Europa League are set to see a cosmetic rebrand. Nothing too drastic – it’s just that lovely starry stadium from the title sequence might change, as will the cyan and magenta colour scheme.
Will this prevent a Super League for good?
Probably not. The European game is in a constant tug-of-war over revenue, with the biggest teams wanting more and more.
Expanding the Champions League to expand second-placed teams didn’t satisfy the elite nearly 30 years ago; neither did letting in a top-four, giving a spot to Europa League winners, giving bigger teams a bigger share of prize money and TV money… there’s no reason that this new initiative could finally close the door on a Super League.
UEFA is perhaps just happy to acquiesce more and more power to the biggest clubs in Europe, in order to keep the Champions League as the main spectacle of football. Perhaps they see this as a price worth paying to prevent a Super League; and anyway, if the absolute biggest clubs can all find a way to play in the biggest competition, that’s surely a good thing?
On paper, sure. But big clubs move in cycles: shifting the borders in order to accommodate the big clubs is not how these clubs became “big” in the first place, leaving us in a worrying place for how not just small clubs can compete, but where the future of football is heading. No one wants to see the gap between the best and rest widening: you can already see the cracks in the Champions League’s newest plans, though.
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